What I learned from the Pussy Riot trial

The punk band are on trial because of who they are, not what they did.

I've just got back from spending two days in Moscow observing the Pussy Riot trial and meeting some of the activists and lawyers involved in the Free Pussy Riot campaign. The Russian legal system, I now know, is rather strange and unpredictable, but I think yesterday saw the end of the trial. We had closing speeches from the prosecuting lawyer, the 'victims'' lawyers (i.e. those who complained about the performance and claim to be insulted or traumatised by it), and the defence, plus final speeches from the three defendants, Nadya, Masha and Katya. The court resumes at 11.30am on Wednesday (8.30am UK time) when we may or may not have a verdict.

As ever, it's frustrating that public awareness and political momentum only comes to a head when it's almost too late. I'd asked a couple of parliamentary questions about it, and the minister for Europe confirmed that the UK was concerned about the case, was critical of the way it was being conducted, and was going to raise it at the next Human Rights dialogue with Russia, on July 13th. But apart from that, my tweets and retweets seemed to be ignored, and only the music blogs - which is where I first heard about the case - were taking any interest.

Once the trial had got underway, however, press attention increased exponentially, and there have been some excellent articles published during the last week or so. I think the problem at first was that, in the UK, people simply didn't take it seriously. It was just a silly stunt, by a band with a silly name. I don't think people realised the wider significance of what the arrests said about who wields power in Russia, and what kind of society it is. "They violated the traditions of our country" said one lawyer. Another - the female lawyer for the victims - seemed to imply that not being an orthodox Christian was in itself a good enough reason for sending someone to jail, and then went on to describe feminism as "a mortal sin". It's clear from watching the trial that Pussy Riot are facing jail sentences because of who they are, what they stand for, what they believe in - not because of what they did.

I've been asked by many people what would have been the response if Pussy Riot had pulled this stunt in St Paul's instead. As people have reminded me, Peter Tatchell was charged with a public order offence after he stormed the pulpit in the middle of a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ended up with an £18 fine. Some have pointed to the draconian sentences handed out to last year's rioters - which I criticised at the time - but I don't think that bears direct comparison. Yes, the aftermath of the riots was about the powers that be wanting to show themselves to be tough, and there was a lot of politics behind it, but the rioters had committed actual criminal offences. Pussy Riot have been prosecuted under an ancient ecclesiastical law that hasn't been invoked for centuries, because the authorities wanted to find them guilty of something, and something that carried a harsh - maximum seven years - sentence too.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the shortcomings in the trial process and the dubious nature of the charges brought. The thing that struck me most was how one-sided the evidence was. The defence simply weren't allowed to call witnesses, other than a couple of character witnesses, and weren't able to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses/ victims properly either, with the judge either rushing them through it or ruling their questions inadmissible.

On the first day, I was in court, which was the sixth day of the trial, it was mostly about 'petitions' being presented by the defence lawyers and the women - petitions as in requests, for example, to be able to call expert witnesses. The judge dismissed this, saying they'd had plenty of time to call such witnesses already, even though she'd not allowed them to call anyone when they'd tried before!

Apart from the concerns about trumped up charges and justice not being done in the courtroom, there is also concern about the way the women are being treated, The women were being kept in a jail a couple of hours drive - in good traffic - from the court. On Monday they arrived at court at 8am although the hearing didn't actually start till gone 10.45, and spent the rest of the day in their glass box in court or in the holding cells on the floor above. The day's hearing finished about 9.30-ish, so that would have meant gerting back to the prison by midnight. They complained in court that they weren't being fed during the day, were only getting two-three hours sleep a night, and weren't getting time to speak to their lawyers.

So what happens now? Well, a verdict is expected in the next day or so. The public and political response will, I suppose, depend on the severity of the sentence. The lawyers have said they will appeal, possibly taking it to the European Court of Human Rights. The activists I met are well aware of the risks they face in speaking out, but are determined to keep up the campaign. They say that a certain level of political activism is tolerated, but once you're on the authorities radar, you'd better be careful.

This is about much more than three young women pulling a silly stunt in a cathedral and getting into more trouble than they bargained for. Let's hope they're released by the court tomorrow, but if not, let's be prepared to fight for them.

Members of female punk band Pussy Riot sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow on 8 August. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser